Can a Game Cure Spider Phobia?

By on May 30, 2013 at 3:06 am

London, United Kingdom – Virtually Free, a UK-based technology start-up, announces the release of its new iPad/iPhone app; Phobia Free 1.01. The app features high definition fully animated and voice-acted sessions that train the user in relaxation techniques and that explain what causes phobias. It then uses games and augmented reality to help users overcome spider phobia. The app uses exposure therapy, a tried and tested method for treating phobias, but with some important modifications.

In the normal course of treatment a therapist would be using the person’s imagination, pictures and real spiders (exposure ‘in vivo’) to gradually get the person to overcome their fear. Phobia Free uses the same process but the exposure is ‘in virtuo’. The user encounters cartoon-like spiders at first, but as she or he progresses the spiders become more realistic. The objective of the games is to help the spiders out of difficult situations. This is to show that the spider is probably more scared of the user than the user is of it. The situations mirror those that people with a fear of spiders dread the most; finding a spider in their shoe, in the bath or even in the coffee tin.

Eventually, the user has to rescue a realistic tarantula from their shed. If they succeed they then have to take out the tarantula into the real world using the augmented reality feature. The final objective is to be able to take a picture of the spider sitting on their hand.

Spider phobia affects around 6% of the population (1). When it is most severe it can change where someone decides to buy a house, go for a job or go on a trip. It can also stop people from going in their cellars or attics and make it difficult to do the gardening or go on a picnic. Sufferers can get a racing heart, sweat excessively, breathe too quickly and feel sick and giddy. In general people tend not to seek help for it, even when it is available. The options include finding the time, energy and/or money to see a therapist or use a self-help book. The games and augmented reality in Phobia Free provide an alternative.

There is good evidence that virtual exposure can be beneficial. A chapter in the book ‘Virtual Reality’ on the application of these techniques in therapy written by Christiane Eichenberg summarizes the research (2). The application was designed by two psychiatrists (Dr Andres Fonseca and Dr Russell Green) and a games developer (Mr Richard Flower) who saw an opportunity to combine their skills to innovate in this field. They founded Virtually Free in 2012 to recreate therapies as gamified systems or serious games to make them more accessible and engaging.

The idea of serious games has been around since the 1970s and it has been used to describe games used for training, education and sometimes advertising. Brenda Brathwaite designs games that–just by their rules–can teach important and difficult lessons. Her game ‘Train’ is a good example of this. Bestselling author and game designer Jane McGonigal believes that games can help us solve hard problems. The success of the protein folding game Foldit shows how that might work. She has created a game called Superbetter that she claims has helped 120,000 players tackle real-life health challenges.

Inspired by these ideas and taking advantage of the adoption of mobile technology Dr Fonseca and Dr Green saw a way to translate what is done in therapy into mobile applications that deliver more than just entertainment. They teamed up with Richard Flower, a games developer of 20 years of experience who was part of the core programming team in the original Tomb Raider. They funded the project themselves as they believed a game will make the process more accessible than reading a book, more affordable than seeing a therapist, and great fun.

Future plans for Phobia Free:
Mobile technology allows more than simply translating therapy interventions into a gamified form. Thanks to the communications and social aspects of the technology it is possible to create virtual support groups. Also, friends and family can offer more immediate support when needed and can have a better understanding of what the person is going through because they can see their progress as they post it on social media or send it directly to their ‘support network’.

It is also possible for individuals to directly help each other, which in turn will benefit them as research on altruism shows. As an example imagine David, who suffers from spider phobia, using Phobia Free. He is struggling with one of the later spider sessions. He had made good progress up until then, but now the new spider proves to be too difficult. He sends out a request for help and Jane, who is also trying to overcome her fear of spiders sees his request. Jane now has the perfect opportunity to do something meaningful for a stranger trying to overcome the same problem she has, making both of them feel better in the process.

The technology also offers privacy if the user wants it. If David does not want anyone to know he has a phobia and that he has decided to help himself he does not need to tell anyone. While he is working through the sessions nobody would be able to tell what kind of app he is running making it completely private and confidential. All the social features are optional and it is perfectly possible to go through the treatment alone.

Virtually Free are actively seeking collaboration with academic institutions and charities that address mental and emotional health problems. So far they have a research partnership with University of Roehampton and they collaborate with two important UK charities: Anxiety UK and Triumph Over Phobias. The charities are featured in Phobia Free and users can donate to them directly from the App.

(1) Schmitt, WJ & Muri, RM (2009) Neurobiologie der Spinnenphobie. Schweizer Archiv fur Neurologie und Psychiatrie 160(8) 352-355

(2) Christiane Eichenberg (2010). Application of ‘Virtual Realities’ in Psychotherapy: Possibilities, Limitations and Effectiveness, Virtual Reality, Prof. Jae-Jin Kim (Ed.), ISBN: 978-953-307-518-1, InTech

Device Requirements:
* iPhone 3GS/4/4S/5, iPod touch (3rd/4th/5th generation), and iPad
* Requires iOS 5.1 or later
* Universal app optimized for display on all iOS devices
* 1.21 MB

Pricing and Availability:
Phobia Free 1.01 is free and available worldwide exclusively through the App Store in the Medical category.

Phobia Free 1.01
Download from iTunes
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Virtually Free develops apps to make therapy more appealing, accessible and affordable. Using gamification, serious games and augmented reality it seeks to recreate therapies used in clinical practice and bring them to mobile devices. Founded in Britain in 2012 by two psychiatrists (Dr. Andres Fonseca and Dr. Russell Green) and a games developer (Richard Flower). It has previously released Stress Free, an application that teaches 4 different relaxation techniques with fully voiced-over animations. Dr Green and Dr Fonseca are members of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Britain and have been helping patients recover from mental health conditions for 15 years. They have also published research in peer-reviewed journals and lecture at Sheffield University and University College London respectively. Richard has been involved in the video games entertainment industry for 20 years and has worked on major franchises. He was part of the core programming team on Tomb Raider for over 5 years. They founded the company with their own funds because they believe it is important to give people engaging and appealing tools to improve themselves without having to wait, jump through referral hoops or pay excessively. Copyright (C) 2013 Virtually Free. All Rights Reserved. Apple, the Apple logo, iPhone, iPod and iPad are registered trademarks of Apple Inc. in the U.S. and/or other countries.